SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

Connecting with fans keeps seats full

Some athletes today must think stadiums and arenas are built with people already in the seats. They walk out of a tunnel into the light and the fans are automatically in place, yelling and screaming on cue.

But these days, with increasing frequency, the seats might be half full and the fans more interested in the antics of a costumed mascot or catching a free mini-ball.

What impact does the player have in filling seats? A huge one. While many teams employ high-powered marketing and advertising talent, players are the best sales people. When the struggle to sell your product hits the wall, athletes can make a tremendous difference in the success or failure of the campaign.

As they say, it's all about attitude.

I recently read about an NBA star who was asked to sign a few autographs at a local shopping center in support of a ticket promotion. "I don't remember anything in my contract about selling season tickets," he said in disgust.

Selling tickets may not be in his contract, but it should be on his mind. He may or may not know that convincing someone to buy a ticket involves a lot more than standing behind a window. He's probably not in those endless meetings where marketing executives struggle to find new slogans, brainstorm a catchy advertising campaign or imagine giving away bobblehead dolls to the first 5,000 through the gates.

According to Kathleen Davis, executive director of Sports Marketing Research Institute (SMRI) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., what really motivates the typical fan is an opportunity for player interaction. "Typically, it's the No. 1 response when we ask fans what they would like to do at a sporting event," she said. "Actually connecting with a player by way of the autograph or catching a souvenir ball is high on the list of aspirations with many sports fans."

In a recent survey conducted by SMRI, fans ages 6-24 were asked "What is the one thing you would change about this event, if you were in charge?" The biggest segment of fans (29 percent) said "more player autographs/interaction." Among another group 25 and older, almost 20 percent wanted to meet the players and have an opportunity for autographs, the second-highest response behind lower ticket prices.

With the incredible demands on today's athlete, we can't always expect them to skip practice or medical treatment to participate in every promotion. The sheer number of media requests for the typical professional player is growing almost as fast as the number of sports talk shows. But when a player steps up and gets involved with the customers, the process takes a completely different turn.

Davis points to NASCAR as an example of creating a successful relationship with the customer. "NASCAR has done a fabulous job making its drivers accessible in the pit areas and the garages," she said. "The response from the fans has been strong loyalty patterns towards sponsors and a propensity to purchase sponsor products associated with the racing event."

You know, when we organized women's professional tennis, our players probably spent more time promoting the sport than participating in it. If we had to decide between practicing or distributing fliers outside the arena, we might be doing the latter. Media interviews and appearances were can't-miss opportunities to send a message. And we didn't miss too many.

All Tyco World TeamTennis players sign autographs, attend sponsor parties and are very good with all media requests. We're planning some Internet chat sessions from Wimbledon, and in most markets we're doing youth clinics with marquee players and coaches. Kids clinics and other community events are a big part of World TeamTennis, and teams like the Philadelphia Freedoms and Delaware Smash might be working with 1,500 kids during the season.

I've been following the success of women's soccer in recent months. With the inaugural Women's United Soccer Association, these athletes have a special opportunity and they seem to be taking full advantage of the situation. Recently, it's seemed like women's soccer players were appearing everywhere. They seemed to be running from place to place, talking about their sport constantly.

Players like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain are the first generation of women's professional soccer. Interviews, autographs and banquets may not be in the contract, but if the WUSA fails to click, these players are out of a job. They are setting the stage for every future player. In 10 or 15 years, another young group of players will be examining the pioneers of today and using them as a measuring stick.

It's important to learn from those who have gone before. The Women's Tennis Association has a mentor program where a present-day player works closely with a former player. This helps players get beyond themselves and is an effective way to translate responsibility. Players like Chris Evert (who works with Martina Hingis) and Pam Shriver (who shares ideas with Venus Williams) are sharing some of their "first-generation" wisdom with today's players and it's working.

Some of the greatest players, both past and present, are vitally aware of public image. And while no one can fulfill every request, they have a degree of responsibility to themselves and the people who pay to watch them.

In today's sports business climate, attitude is key. We need contributors when it comes to selling tickets or sponsorships. More important, we need people willing to connect with the customer. Coaches and players can easily become consumed with performance. But if the forehand, jump shot, hit and run, fullback draw or penalty kill is the singular focus, then some rethinking may be in order.

Those people watching are judging more than just playing ability. They are deciding if this is worth their while and whether they might ever again buy a ticket. Some positive interaction with "the product on the field" may become the real point of sale.

Billie Jean King is co-founder and director of World TeamTennis.

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